James Wood

James Wood’s most recent book is Serious Noticing: Selected Essays 1999-2019.

It took me some time to listen properly to Beethoven, to get past the heroic glower of his portrait, the worldwide canonicity. (Surely it didn’t help that our entire generation, like those before us, had to trudge through Für Elise and what we could manage of the Pathétique on the piano. I used to go to sleep to the broken sounds of those pieces, as my brother, five years older, toiled downstairs at his ‘homework’.) It wasn’t till my early twenties that I started listening to the piano sonatas as they demand to be heard: evenly, carefully. Later, I worked through a few on the piano, cold-fingered after years of keyboard hibernation. The Beethoven who emerged turned out to be closer in spirit and practice to Tallis and Byrd than I had imagined. This was a Beethoven not of overwhelming symphonic force but of delicate counterpoint and relentless chromatic logic, a composer who explores the subtlest harmonic developments, who delights in exploring fugues, dissonance, form.

Diary: These Etonians

James Wood, 4 July 2019

If they were posh, they were interestingly so, like the brilliant mathematician and future Fields medalist Timothy Gowers, whose father was a composer and whose great-great-grandfather had been a famous neurologist. Or they came from bohemian and eccentric families, like Boris Johnson, perhaps with a hint of social arrivisme. Johnson, by the way, looked pretty much the same at 15 as he does at 55, and was a familiar sight as he charged and flapped his way around the college lanes. The bigfoot stoop (he was known as ‘the Yeti’), the bumbling confidence, the skimmed-milk pallor, the berserk hair, the alarming air of imminent self-harm, which gave the impression that he had been freshly released from some protective institution: all was already in place.

Wessex was where Hardy could stage his feeling for cosmic conservatism; a late formulation appears in ‘In Time of “The Breaking of Nations”’, written in 1915, which pits the Continental catastrophe of the Great War against the longer histories of the English countryside, peopled by ‘a maid and her wight’: ‘War’s annals will cloud into night/Ere their story die.’ If Hardy was half a modern Londoner, the other half had a weakness for the pastoral-oracular. The two halves changed shape, feeding and modifying each other.

On Not Going Home

James Wood, 20 February 2014

When I left this country 18 years ago, I didn’t know how strangely departure would obliterate return: how could I have done? It’s one of time’s lessons, and can only be learned temporally. What is peculiar, even a little bitter, about living for so many years away from the country of my birth, is the slow revelation that I made a large choice a long time ago that did not resemble a large choice at the time; that it has taken years for me to see this; and that this process of retrospective comprehension in fact constitutes a life – is indeed how life is lived. Freud has a wonderful word, ‘afterwardness’, which I need to borrow, even at the cost of kidnapping it from its very different context. To think about home and the departure from home, about not going home and no longer feeling able to go home, is to be filled with a remarkable sense of ‘afterwardness’: it is too late to do anything about it now, and too late to know what should have been done. And that may be all right.

For someone growing up with the music of Benjamin Britten, it was sometimes hard to recall that his last name was not ‘Britain’. The race that Nietzsche had deemed heavy-hoofed and unmusical, whose last truly great composer had been Purcell, a nation that had been doing nothing very much, musically, but warbling in cathedrals for a couple of centuries, had somehow managed to produce a 20th-century composer of international stature, whose last name was that of the nation itself.

Henry James was foul about Far from the Madding Crowd when it appeared in 1874. He was a young writer, ambitious, seething, silkily aggressive. There was ground to be cleared, and residents had to be deported. Thomas Hardy, with his knobbly rusticities and merry peasants, would not do. In the Nation, James complained that the novel had a ‘fatal lack of magic’, and was written in a ‘verbose and redundant style … Everything human in the book strikes us as factious and insubstantial; the only things we believe in are the sheep and the dogs.’

In the summer of 1967, a man who remains unnamed but who resembles the author W.G. Sebald is visiting Belgium. At the Centraal Station in Antwerp, he sees a fellow traveller, with fair, curiously wavy hair, who is wearing heavy walking boots, workman’s trousers made of blue calico and a well-made but antiquated jacket. He is intently studying the room and taking notes. This is Jacques...

What’s next? Afterlives

James Wood, 14 April 2011

Last year, my father-in-law died. He was a complicated, difficult, intelligent man; the obituary-ese would be ‘colourful’. On occasion, when he was alive, I wanted him to go to hell. But when I sat at his deathbed, and looked at the body from which life had ebbed, I couldn’t help marvelling at the longevity, persistence and garish exuberance of the concept of the afterlife....

All fictions are closed worlds, smaller than our own, and so it is not surprising that novelists are often drawn to represent very small worlds – boarding houses, hotels, a plague-sealed town, a single day in a prison, a bare room. These reduced spaces intensify the fictionality that made them: they are as bound as a book. Depending on the intensity of the reduction, plot slows down to...

Memories of Frank Kermode

Stefan Collini, Karl Miller, Adam Phillips, Jacqueline Rose, James Wood, Michael Wood and Wynne Godley, 23 September 2010

Stefan Collini writes: ‘Yes, I’d like that very much. That really would be something to look forward to.’ Frank was already weakened and wasted by throat cancer, but my suggestion that we go to watch some cricket at Fenner’s did seem genuinely to appeal to him. There wasn’t much to look forward to by this point. On the appointed day the weather was kind, and...

In a Spa Town: ‘A Hero of Our Time’

James Wood, 11 February 2010

When Samuel Johnson, travelling in the Highlands with James Boswell, reaches Loch Ness, he is so overwhelmed by the massiveness of the landscape that the heavy order of his prose is briefly disarrayed. On his right, there are high and steep rocks, and on his left deep water laps against the bank in ‘gentle agitation’. The rocks are ‘towering in horrid nakedness’....

Bristling with Diligence: A.S. Byatt

James Wood, 8 October 2009

Whenever a detail could be selected at the expense of another one, Byatt will always prefer to buy both, and include the receipts: ‘Art Nouveau, the New Art, was paradoxically backward-looking, flirting with the Ancient of Days, the Sphinx, the Chimera, Venus under the Tannenberg, Persian peacocks, melusines and Rhine maidens’. There is always an atmosphere of the author reporting for intellectual duty, bristling with diligence. Her fictional world is exhaustively searched, but never quite seen. Some large novels are remarkably lithe, but The Children’s Book is rhythmically stolid.

At a formal level, the confession of any withheld revelation, even an unsettling one, is satisfying. It contains and closes; it solves a narrative puzzle. This manipulation of surprise is reproduced at the level of McEwan's sentences. He writes very distinguished prose, but is fond of a kind of thrillerish defamiliarisation, in which he lulls the reader into thinking one thing while preparing something else.

Like Welch’s work, Pilcrow gets nowhere very elegantly. Adam Mars-Jones has been celebrated for the slenderness of his work, increasingly for its non-existence, as if his career were an exercise in negative theology. Pilcrow is not only very long; it measures its length in such tiny units that at times you feel that a version of Zeno’s paradox will stop you from ever reaching its end.

These days, God-like authorial omniscience is permitted only if God is a sweet ghost, the kind with whom the residents can peaceably coexist. This is especially true in most contemporary short stories, where the narrator may be wildly unreliable (first person) or reliably invisible (third person), but not wildly visible and reliable. Few younger contemporary writers risk the kind of biblical...

Anxious Pleasures: Thomas Hardy

James Wood, 4 January 2007

What is this? ‘Two miles behind it a jet of white steam was travelling from the left to the right of the picture.’ It is a train, viewed across a valley, in Jude the Obscure (1895), and it is the only sentence offered there about this train. Flaubert is always described as the great cinematic novelist, the great novelist of detail, and indeed Flaubert has his own described...

Can you always count on a bastard for a fancy prose style? It is hard to imagine the fiction of Edward St Aubyn stripped of the cool silver of its style. I am not accusing St Aubyn of being a bastard; I mean that he writes very well about bastards, and that both their contempt for the world and St Aubyn’s contempt for them find their best expression in a certain kind of intelligent,...

Last year, Louis Knickerbocker, a meat distributor from Newport Beach, California, bought a Picasso drawing from the online service of Costco for $40,000. Knickerbocker thought it a steal: ‘They just sell the top quality,’ he told the New York Times, ‘whatever you buy at Costco, whether it’s a washing-machine or a vacuum cleaner. I just thought, if it’s a Picasso, you can’t go wrong.’

In the beginning was not the word, or the deed, but the face. ‘Darkness was upon the face of the deep,’ runs the King James Version in the second verse of the opening of Genesis. ‘And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.’ Two uses of ‘face’ in one verse, and a third implied face, surely: God’s own, hovering over the face of his still uncreated world. The Almighty, looking into the face of his waters, might well be expected to see his face reflected: it is profoundly his world, still uncontaminated by rebellious man.

In their very different ways, the three most prominent Oxford professors of English since the war have all been populist pretenders. John Carey, scourge of Modernist ‘intellectuals’ and reliable dribbler of cold water on all forms of overheated aestheticism, comes across as the last defender of sensible English decency. Terry Eagleton, with his blokeish binarisms and comic’s patter, increasingly presents himself as the sensible Marxist alternative to toothless and ornate theory in America and continental Europe. And John Bayley, with his hospitable style and gift for canonical gossip, again and again attempts to defend the sensible common reader against academic criticism tout court – what he has variously called ‘the higher criticism’, ‘smart academic critics’, ‘the literary lads’, ‘the clever men at Yale and elsewhere’, and ‘the high-tech men’.

Last year, when the young writer Nicole Krauss published an extract from her second novel in the New Yorker, I took delighted note. The voice of her elderly narrator was both familiar and strange enough to be captivating. Leopold Gursky, an 80-year-old Jewish immigrant from Poland, told us about his solitary, death-haunted life in Manhattan. He tries to be seen by someone at least once every...

A controlling symbol or organising detail or image can be sensed fizzing away like a lozenge of meaning in most contemporary short stories. The delicate art of these stories allows the writer to draw our attention to such symbols or images without pressing too hard on the connection. Suppose that a man and woman are getting married. The bride feels that she may be making a mistake, that she...

“The glamour of geography plays its part in fiction. Some of the pleasure we get from reading Conrad, say, lies in the way in which he strings an exotic sketch of a minor character along a rope of exile. Stein in Lord Jim, for instance, with his collections of butterflies and ‘catacombs of beetles’, is said to have taken part in the revolutions of 1848, then fled to Trieste, and then to Tripoli, ‘with a stock of cheap watches to hawk about’. Bezmozgis is similarly alive to what immigration and exile can do for a writer. He enjoys galvanising his paragraphs with little jolts of far-flung historical reference: ‘My father was dressed in his blue Hungarian suit – veteran of international weightlifting competitions from Tallinn to Sochi.’ He knows that the Western reader will roll cities like Tallinn and Sochi on his tongue, as alien grapes, enjoying their strange flavours.”

Comedy is the disguised priest who weds every couple, the German writer Jean Paul Richter said, and in the English novel the greatest of all disguised priests, the comic celebrant of happy unions, is Jane Austen. For the puff of marital harmony that ends every one of her books, among other things, Austen’s comedy began to be called ‘Shakespearean’ soon after her death. But...

“Stevenson’s book is, it should be said in fairness, a massive gathering of painful erudition. He is like Denys the Alexandrian, who in Flaubert’s account received orders from heaven to read every book in the world. His head must be dizzy with the minor works of Julian Mitchell and Francis King and Brian Patten and Maureen Duffy. His sleep must have been poisoned for years by worries about properly dating Piers Paul Read’s A Married Man. It is . . . a disaster to fill a book like this with storms of names and endless lists; narrative gets shouted down by the encyclopedic.”

The Lie-World: D.B.C. Pierre

James Wood, 20 November 2003

“It is in some ways a remarkable first novel, and its achieved tone of adolescent desperation and rebellion suggests years of broken gestation . . . It is also a limited work, cartoonish, narrow, raucous, too often mistaking noise for vividness . . . Andrew O’Hagan rightly characterises its effect as ‘like the Osbournes invited the Simpsons round for a root beer, and Don DeLillo dropped by to help them write a new song for Eminem,’ without telling us why that particular party would be enjoyable or even tolerable.”

“There may be many readers who, on hearing of J.M. Coetzee’s Nobel prize, immediately thought about the cost of clarity. There is so much, after all, missing from Coetzee’s distinguished books. His prose is precise, but blanched; in place of comedy there is only bitter irony . . . in place of society, with its domestic and familial affiliations, there is political society; and underfoot is often the tricky camber of allegory, insisting on pulling one’s step in certain directions.”

How’s the Empress? Graham Swift

James Wood, 17 April 2003

Rummaging around, in a notebook entry of 1896, for the properly grim place to deposit his unfortunate heroine, Maisie Farange, Henry James alights on Folkestone, and with grey satisfaction asks himself: ‘don’t I get an effect from Folkestone?’ James does indeed get an ‘effect’, in What Maisie Knew, from Folkestone: from the name, from the town, from its seaside...

Bobbery: Pushkin’s Leave-Taking

James Wood, 20 February 2003

It is in some ways unfortunate that Tchaikovsky set Eugene Onegin to music, not Rossini, the composer of deep shallows. Pushkin, according to T.J. Binyon’s remarkable biography, became ‘addicted’ to Rossini while living in Odessa, where an Italian opera company was visiting, and though Binyon makes nothing of it, it rather blares at us, as writers’ tastes in music so...

Credulity: ‘Life of Pi’

James Wood, 14 November 2002

The writing manages its vividness not by flouncing into Fine Writing but by combining a literary register with Pi’s simpler, earnest voice (’it was positively deafening’). Still, although Pi certainly has a voice, the literary cost of his boyish naivety is that he is somewhat empty as a character.

Fundamentally Goyish: Zadie Smith

James Wood, 3 October 2002

Like Dave Eggers, Smith is interested in contemporary self-consciousness. Insofar as she is a moralist, she is a moralist about this. She is always pointing out that her characters, on the brink of a momentous access of feeling, are undermined by their sense that they are not being original, that TV has preceded them.

Phut-Phut: The ‘TLS’

James Wood, 27 June 2002

There is a story that Gershom Scholem, the scholar of Jewish mysticism, was being introduced at a lecture in New York. Mysticism, the introducer said sarcastically, is nothing; but a history of nothing – well, that is science. The same can be said, multipliedly, of Derwent May’s book, which is essentially a history of the book review, a genre of such tiny dignity that its life...

I denied my father three times, but he only died once. The Obituaries Editor of the Times was responsible for my first denial. I was living in London with my wife, Jane Sheridan, and things were not going well. At University College, where I was teaching philosophy, I had become one of those figures whom students romanticise and sometimes pity. I didn’t have the proper qualifications,...

Here is a characteristic piece of comedy from the Book of Scottish Anecdote (seventh edition, 1888). A gentleman upbraids his servant: is it true, he asks him, that you have had the audacity to spread around the idea that your master is stingy? No, no, replies the servant, you won’t find me doing that kind of thing: ‘I aye keep my thoughts to mysel’.’


It seems to be easier for John Updike to stifle a yawn than to refrain from writing a book. It is generally thought niggardly or envious to complain about a writer’s abundance (a book a year, roughly, in Updike’s case). Most novelists, it is said, would pant to exhibit such a fault. Or the case is made that it is otiose to complain about the mediocre books when there are so many...

Cold-Shouldered: John Carey

James Wood, 8 March 2001

John Carey’s new book, like his last one, The Intellectuals and the Masses, is a little swizzle-stick perfectly designed for flattening airy literary bubbles. Surprisingly, it is likable, wise and often right, the more so in tending to contradict The Intellectuals and the Masses, which had none of these qualities. The enemy has stayed the same – roughly, overweening literary...

What is funny and forlorn, where is the comic pathos, in the following sentence? ‘A fortune-teller once read my cards and said that if it wasn’t for a tiny black cloud hanging over me I could do great things and not only for my country but for all mankind.’ Instantly, a person opens before us like a quick wound: probably a man (that slight vibration of a swagger), grandiose in aspiration but glued to a petty destiny, eccentric and possibly mad, a talker, rowdy with anecdote. There is a comedy, and a sadness, in the prospect of an ambition so large (‘for all mankind’) that it must always be frustrated, and comedy, too, in the rather easy and even proud way that this character accepts his frustration: is he not a little pleased with the ‘tiny black cloud’ that impedes his destiny? – at least it is the mark of something.

The novel must be both very efficient and very wasteful; it thinks like parable but moves like life. Without efficiency – not necessarily concision or compactness, so much as a high degree of chosenness – a story may seem gratuitous; but without a lining of gratuity, a story may seem too necessary, may not seem like a story at all. Muriel Spark, a novelist drawn to the parable, to the ballad, the short form, has negotiated – or wrestled with – this balance of the necessary and the random throughout her career. Her best novels, which also happen to be those that appeal most to her readers – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Girls of Slender Means and A Far Cry from Kensington – moisten the stringency of her vision with what one might call the wetness of life. They are books which, while highly composed, tolerate an apparent abundance of ‘unnecessary’ social and human detail, and whose characters have the unclean inconsistencies and contradictions which we find in life.’‘

A Sicilian peasant is dying of malaria, and trembling on his bed ‘like leaves in November’. His neighbours visit him, and while they stand around in his house ‘warming their hands at the fire’, they conclude that there’s no hope, because ‘it’s the kind of malaria that kills you quicker than a shot from a gun.’ The peasant says to his son, Jeli: ‘When I’m dead, go to the man who owns the cows at Ragoleti, and get him to hand over the three onze and twelve sacks of grain owing to me from May up to the present.’ But Jeli corrects him: ‘No, it’s only two and a quarter, because you left the cows over a month ago, and you mustn’t steal from the hand that feeds you.’ ‘That’s true!’ his father agrees, and promptly dies.‘

Rambling: Speaking our Minds

James Wood, 1 June 2000

In the Theaetetus, Socrates is puzzled about how we make use of what we already know. Take a mathematician, he says. Such a person must already have in his head all the numbers he will work with. Yet when he counts, he sets out, as it were, to learn from himself things that he already knows, and the same is true of a scholar, starting to read the same book for the umpteenth time. This is a paradox of redundancy, in which we have unnaturally to forget what we would naturally remember in order to learn something ‘new’.‘

Buckets of Empathy

James Wood, 30 March 2000

If innocence were a family business, a terraced saga like Buddenbrooks, our age would be the sickly generation that abandons the firm and takes up the piano. We would seem to have nothing left in the innocence bank; we are rich on suspicion. In literature, contemporary examples abound. Martin Amis, for instance, offers his own brief allegory of the writer’s modern suspicion in The Information. Richard Tull, a novelist, hears birds singing in his garden, and thinks, mournfully: ‘say birds were just parrots and learned their songs from what they heard: those trills and twitters were imitations of mountain rivulets, of dew simpering downwards through trees. Now the parrot had left its jungle and stood on a hook in a pub shouting “Bullshit!” ’‘

Tell me what you talked: V.S. Naipaul

James Wood, 11 November 1999

In his essay on laughter, Bergson argues that comedy is chastening, not charitable. Laughter is defined by a certain absence of sympathy, a distance and disinterestedness, the philosopher tells us. A world that contained only pure intelligences would probably still include laughter; a world made up of pure emotionalists probably would not. Bergson appears to have been universalising from the example of Molière, and in so doing produces a description of comedy that is mightily contradicted at almost every station of literature. For literature’s greatest category might be precisely one of sympathetic comedy: in particular, that paradoxical shuffle of condescension and affiliation we are made to feel by Bottom the weaver, or Don Quixote, or Uncle Toby, or Zeno, or Pnin. Such characters have busy souls. They are congested by aspiration, an aspiration that outstrips their insight. They claim to know themselves, but their selves are too dispersed to be known. It is we who know them, because we know at least something about them: that they are self-ignorant. They are rich cavities, into which we pour a kindly offering: if we are the only ones who can provide the knowledge they lack about themselves, then we ourselves have become that lack, have become a part of them.

Watering the Dust: Saint Augustine

James Wood, 30 September 1999

When I was 16 or so, my parents moved to Weardale, a farming area where little villages and farms flock between Durham on the east and Northumberland on the west. The church in the village we lived in was Late Victorian, devoutly ugly, its furnishings as decent and sparse as its congregation, who regularly comprised an ancient churchwarden (the only man) and five or six elderly ladies. I often played the organ, which was a tinny wheezer. It was not a rich village; there were people in it who had never left County Durham, and one set of brothers who had never been on a train. One of the women in the congregation was so tone-deaf that she seemed to speak the hymns rather than sing them; another always mispronounced the word ‘apostolic’ during the recitation of the Creed (‘Holy, catholic and apostolic church’), landing heavily on the second rather than the third syllable. Since there were so few congregants, her stumble tended to put everyone else out, like a lame pall-bearer.‘

Too Many Alibis: Geoffrey Hill

James Wood, 1 July 1999

Geoffrey Hill the poet is often washing his hands. Sensuous but deeply penitential, his poetry visits waves of scruple upon itself. No contemporary poet has a more contrite ear for the confessions, and the betrayals, of words. Of course, much great poetry has not worn this bent gesture, nor do we always want it to, and it can be irritating when Hill’s more pious admirers speak as if verse’s highest theme should be not the intolerable wrestle with words, but, as it were, a further wrestle with the wrestle. Thomas Mann, like Hill, an artist wary of the claims and capacities of art, lamented that his Doctor Faustus was ‘joylessly earnest, not artistically happy’, and Hill’s two new books certainly tread the gravel of the joyless.‘

Empire of Signs: Joseph Roth

James Wood, 4 March 1999

With Joseph Roth, you begin – and end – with the prose. The great delight of this Austrian novelist, who wrote in the Twenties and Thirties, lies in his strange, nimble, curling sentences, which are always skewing into the most unexpected metaphors. It is rare to find luminous powers of realism and narrative clarity so finely combined with a high poetic temperature. Joseph Brodsky said that there is a poem on every page of Roth, and certainly, Roth’s almost nervous fondness for metaphor recalls the image-blessed, image-sick prose of another poet, Osip Mandelstam, sooner than any novelist.’

A young man, hectic and dirty, sits on a park bench in a cold city. He is wild, nervous, seems to fiddle with his soul. Beside him, an old man is holding a newspaper. The young man begins a conversation. In its course, the old man reveals that he is blind. He asks the young man where he lives. The young man decides to lie, and names a pleasant square, somewhere he could not afford in his present circumstances. The blind man knows the square, knows the building, in fact. What is the name of the landlord again, asks the blind man. The young man says the first word that comes into his head: ‘Hippolati.’ Ah yes, says the blind man, Hippolati, that’s right, he knows the name, it was on the tip of his tongue. The young man is enjoying this; he froths his lies up into greater extravagances. He reminds the old man that Hippolati is something of an inventor, that he invented an electric prayer-book. Yes, says the blind man, he recalls hearing something like that. And, Hippolati was for seven years a cabinet minister in Persia, adds the young man. Ah yes, says the old man.‘

Ceaseless Anythings: Robert Stone

James Wood, 1 October 1998

American realism, once a belief, is now an idle liberty. Writers such as Robert Stone, Joan Didion, John Irving and even Don DeLillo, are praised for their ‘realism’, for the solidity of their plots, the patience of their characterisation, the capillary spread of their social portraits, the leverage of their political insight. Robert Stone is one of the best contemporary realists America has. But it is difficult to read Damascus Gate with anything like the respect it seems to desire, and with which it has been received in the United States. With its carefully mortised scenes, its dialogue intelligently starved, its descriptions shaved down to a familiar stubble, and the squeezed reticence of its prose (hardly a single simile in the book, each word a little hiatus of arrival), Damascus Gate is never dull, and never unintelligent. But it is never literature, either. Instead, it reveals contemporary realism to be only a series of techniques and conventions aimed at the management of simplicity. Realism, in Stone’s hands, is a calm firefighter, able to travel anywhere and put out the fire of complexity at a moment’s notice.‘

Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel is a spoiled gift which, as an ugly baby makes us search for deficiencies in its attractive parents, forces us to reconsider its creator’s talents. That Hollinghurst possesses great talents is certainly not in question. There is probably no novelist alive with such a deeply historical feeling for English poetic lyricism. His prose is almost drowsy with inheritance. Yet he is wakeful, too – intelligent, droll, social, especially good at capturing snobbery’s self-grooming. He has a beautifully loitering instinct for form and sentence: his novels never hustle themselves to conclusion, or to heavily obvious theme.’

Thomas More, the scrupulous martyr, is the complete English saint. But no man can be a saint in God’s eyes, and no man should be one in ours; and certainly not Thomas More. He is seen as a Catholic martyr because he died opposing Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and the King’s robbery from the Pope of the leadership of the English Church. But he is also seen as a lawyer-layman caught in the mesh of presumptuous ecclesiology, an English Cicero of the pre-Reformation who nobly gave his head to forces beyond his control. Most absurdly, because of Robert Bolt’s screenplay, this barrister of Catholic repression is widely envisioned as modernity’s diapason: the clear, strong note of individual conscience, sounding against the authoritarian intolerance of the Early Modern state.

Faulting the Lemon: Iris Murdoch

James Wood, 1 January 1998

English fiction since the war has been a house of good intentions. Inside it are thick theories and slender fulfilments. English novelists solemnise, in commentary about the novel, the qualities and virtues they most obviously lack in practice. They people their artistic gaps with desiderata. Thus Angus Wilson possessed a serious liberal politics, and an ethical respect for the individual, which illuminates his criticism of the novel; but he never created a single character of free and serious depth (he got closest in Late Call). A.S. Byatt has written well about her desire to write what she calls ‘self-conscious realism’; but her realism is seldom deep enough to warrant its self-consciousness. Margaret Drabble appears to want to combine Dickens and Woolf, to combine caricature and experimental forms, but can create neither vivid caricatures nor daring experiments. Martin Amis seems to want to borrow that very faculty – soul – about which he is most naturally, and most amusingly, ironic. And Iris Murdoch has written repeatedly that the definition of the great novel is the free and realised life it gives to its characters, while making her own fictional characters as unfree as pampered convicts. Perhaps in our time only V.S. Pritchett has written the fiction his criticism desires.’‘

A Snack before I Die

James Wood, 21 August 1997

We can get a better understanding of Chekhov and his work from the notebook he kept than from any biography – even an important biography, like this one. It is a ledger of enigmas in which nothing adds up, full of strange squints, comic observations and promptings for new stories.

Things happen all the time

James Wood, 8 May 1997

There are writers for whom reality seems a secret novelty; and there are writers for whom it seems a shared habit. In the first category-which would include Dostoevsky, Conrad, Svevo – nothing is entirely recognisable, everything seems to have been burned out of recognition by the difficulty of its entry into the world. This is the strangeness they offer, and which we enjoy. In the second category, reality is born in an open ward. It makes its appeal to a known world. It is not that the writer’s reality is necessarily familiar to the reader, but it is familiar to its characters. We learn to judge oddity by seeing it through them. In this category are Tolstoy, Chekhov; and in our age the late V.S. Pritchett and Alice Munro.’

Seeing in the Darkness

James Wood, 6 March 1997

Taking the clapper out of the bell makes no sense, but this is what we do too often with D.H. Lawrence. The writer who seemed to believe in dualisms – blindness over sight, blood over mind, pagan over modern, and so on – gets broken into two like a stable door. Readers, critics and biographers insist on splitting Lawrence into writer or preacher, dogmatist or poet. On the one hand, there is the marvellous animist, the quick, vital writer of physical descriptions – the poet, say, who sees a kangaroo with its ‘drooping Victorian shoulders’, or a mosquito moving like ‘a dull clot of air’. On the other, there is the preacher, the tiresome Lawrence of hoarse doctrine, the bully of blood, the friendless hammer coming down again and again in the prose.’

Child of Evangelism

James Wood, 3 October 1996

My childhood was spent in the command economy of evangelical Christianity. Life was centrally planned: all negotiations had to pass by Jesus’s desk. Language was religiously inflated. When my bedroom was untidy my parents told me that this was ‘poor stewardship’, because it was not right to be careless with God’s things. Poor behaviour was ‘unworthy’ or ‘unedifying’. Sometimes it seems that my childhood was the noise around the hush of God. And at times an actual hush: I remember several episodes when my parents talked quietly about someone they knew who had ‘lost his faith’, and the solemn vibrations that would fill the house at these times, as if a doctor were visiting. Similarly, my childhood was marked by the deaths of friends of my parents who were members of their congregation, people for whom the full evangelical panoply – prayer, the laying on of hands, anointing with oil – did not seem to have worked.’


James Wood, 20 June 1996

Seamus Heaney has always doubted poetry – not as a philosopher might doubt reality, but as a rich man might doubt money. He feels not scepticism, but guilt. He thanks poetry for existing but is tormented by the size of its donation. Poetry, he suspects, has no right to its wealth; so he lavishes scruples on his readers. Heaney’s poetry is loaded with anxiety and self-tormented power. At times this is truly powerful, and at other times merely self-tormented. But this is nevertheless the grimace of a major poet.’

Charmed Quarantine

James Wood, 21 March 1996

Helen Vendler has the power to steal poets and enslave them in her personal canon. For this she is squeezed between rival condescensions: theorists pity her comprehensibility, while in creative writing departments poets denounce her ‘tyranny’, her ‘narrow aesthetic’, her ‘conservatism’. That both writers and academics complain about her is testament to her influence and gentle longevity – she is the most powerful poetry critic in America since Randall Jarrell. She started reviewing in 1966, a year after Jarrell’s death, when the Massachusetts Review asked her to write a journal of the year’s work in poetry. Like Jarrell, she has a large historical reach while seeming to prefer the present to all other ages. Like Jarrell, she seems to have some kind of generative magic. The poets she celebrates prosper, as if they do not want to obstruct her predictions. For Jarrell, these poets were his contemporaries – Lowell, Moore, Bishop, Berryman and Stevens. When Jarrell writes that he is living in a time of great poetry, it is as if he is not merely describing but claiming something. Vendler’s belief in her contemporaries – that, as she has put it, ‘American poetry remains in good hands’ – is more modest. But as with Jarrell, these hands are hers as well as the hands of ‘her’ poets. She has created the taste by which many of these poets are enjoyed, returning repeatedly, as in these three books, to polish a group of them with her calm, uncreased prose – John Ashbery, James Merrill, A.R. Ammons, Amy Clampitt, Charles Simic, Dave Smith, Seamus Heaney, Louise Glück, Jorie Graham and Rita Dove.’


James Wood, 24 August 1995

Edmund White has always struggled between appeasing the gods of his art and paying off the princelings of politics. Endearingly, and sometimes infuriatingly, he insists on doing both, and the result often leaves his pockets rather empty. Thus in his book of selected journalism, The Burning Library, he can move from a sublime celebration of Nabokov’s ‘greatness’ to a demand that ‘even the hierarchy inherent in the concept of a canon must be jettisoned.’ It is how he is able, in a piece about Robert Mapplethorpe, to argue that ‘passion, like art, is always irresponsible, useless, an end in itself, regulated by its own impulses and nothing else’ and to propose in another that the best gay writing should be a combination of confession, reportage and witness.


James Wood, 8 December 1994

Angela Carter’s first novel, Shadow Dance, is a bold, leathery, coarse book. It summarises thinly its author’s later adventures and preoccupations, as the chapter headings in a picaresque novel do its hero’s: Gothic entropy, sexual ambiguity, personality as masquerade, the theatre of theatre. It is a first wispy cloud in what would become a boiling sky; it casts a small shadow.

Beware of shallowness

James Wood, 7 July 1994

Each new book by Jeanette Winterson is said to be poorer than its predecessor; she is like a bibliographer’s definition of nostalgia. As her novels become more ghostly, so they give off a stronger vapour of self-promotion. Her last, Written On The Body, announced on its cover that it had ‘fused mathematical exactness and poetic intensity and made language new’. Her latest also bears a Winterson-accented description on its jacket: ‘Art & Lies is a rich book, bawdy and beautiful, shocking because of its beauty … a dangerous book, banked with ideas forced out of the words themselves, not words for things, but words that are living things with the power to move.’…

Ever so comfy

James Wood, 24 March 1994

Every handful of John Updike’s silver has its square coin, its bad penny, its fake. This exquisitely careful writer tends to relax into flamboyance: it is the verbal equivalent of ostentatious tipping. Floating in his air of serene bestowal, the generous author throws his words at anyone who will have them. Keen watchers of such moments will enjoy the introduction to his Collected Poems: ‘In hotel rooms and airplanes, on beaches and Sundays, at junctures of personal happiness or its opposite, poetry has comforted me with its hope of permanence, its packaging of flux.’ Updike cannot resist a languid summation: the poems ‘form thus, with their sites and occasions, the thready backside of my life’s fading tapestry’.


James Wood, 5 August 1993

Poetry anthologies are now expected to make holy war; but what to do with The New Poetry, which strives so earnestly to turn its trumpet-majors into angels? The 55 poets collected here are, it seems, seraphs of a benevolent novelty, somehow singing their good news at once uniquely and in shimmering unison. ‘A multicultural society,’ write the editors in their introduction, ‘challenges the very idea of a centre, and produces pluralism of poetic voice.’ This plurality has, in the last decade, produced a new poetry, one which ‘emphasises accessibility, democracy and responsiveness, humour and seriousness, and reaffirms the art’s significance as public utterance. The new poetry highlights the beginning of the end of British poetry’s tribal divisions and isolation, and a new cohesiveness – its constituent parts “talk” to one another readily, eloquently and freely, while preserving their unique identities.’’

The Glamour of Glamour

James Wood, 19 November 1992

Though a mystery story, Donna Tartt’s first novel The Secret History holds few secrets. It is as open as a child: its revelations are too frequent to be significant, and its secrets too helpless to be revealing. It is a fairy-tale about a poor Californian who arrives at a rich New England college and quickly falls in with glamour and murder. Apparently about the nature of evil, it is full of wonder and romance – the romance of money, class, intelligence and beauty. It is swoonily compulsive, like listening to your own heartbeat: its sequence flatters you with what you want to hear. As the book’s narrator, Richard Papen, discovers the golden campus and its gang of five mysterious Classics students, so his yearning to find out more about this cosy world becomes identical with the reader’s, and a childish pact is joined (as in the best romances).’

Seeing Curt Lemon blown up

James Wood, 26 July 1990

Tim O’Brien, who fought in Vietnam in 1968, went on to write two fine books: the memoir, If I die in a combat zone (1973), and the novel, Going after Cacciato (1979). This latest work, a collection of brusque but moving fictions about life in Vietnam, linked by autobiographical enquiries, has all the qualities of the first two books, the same hunger for fidelity. Going after Cacciato opened with a witness’s blasted catalogue, something between a lament and an army dispatch:


Fairly Awful

5 August 2010

Terry Eagleton was funny and incisive about Cardinal Newman’s fairly awful politics, but I couldn’t help noticing that Newman’s fairly awful religious beliefs were spared similarly serious inquiry (LRB, 5 August). It seems that while one can have debatable political opinions, as soon as one has religious opinions they are, according to Eagleton, never ‘certain propositions about...
One doesn’t need to have Richard Dawkins’s level of certainty to find Terry Eagleton’s Catholic sermon utterly incoherent (LRB, 19 October). On the one hand, according to Eagleton, God is transcendent, invisible, not a principle nor an entity, not even ‘existent’: indeed, ‘in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that...

Unconditional Generosity

20 November 2003

James Wood writes: When I said that the Booker judges ‘concurred’ with the ‘shiny new populism’ of the Man Booker Prize’s new sponsors, I was being idly figurative, and am happy to retract any imputation that the sponsors influenced in any way the outcome of the prize. I was a Booker judge in 1994, and know perfectly well that it would be impossible for the prize’s...

A Frog’s Life

23 October 2003

Mary Elkins and Mattias Brinkman, so sure that J.M. Coetzee is not ‘confessing’ anything in Elizabeth Costello, sound a little dogmatic about how undogmatic that novel may be (Letters, 6 November). How certain they both are that a novel that is playful, dialogic and subtly evasive cannot simultaneously confess anything; that a novel ‘exploring the pitfalls of confession’ might...

No Idea

12 December 2002

In his sprightly review of a book of critical essays, On Modern British Fiction, Terry Eagleton commends one contributor’s essay for dealing in ‘complex ideas, which was never quite criticism’s strongest point’ (LRB, 12 December 2002). When people like Eagleton write slightingly about ‘criticism’ or ‘English literature’, they hardly ever mean ‘criticism...

No Forgiveness

30 September 1999

William Myers objects to my gloomy view of Augustine and original sin (Letters, 28 October) and suggests that my review ‘gets some things wrong’. Alas, he gets more things wrong. He corrects me for claiming that original sin is Augustinian in origin. Actually, I never claimed this in my review of Garry Wills’s book; but if I had, Myers would still be wrong, because Augustine can certainly...

Nom de Guerre

26 November 1998

Alexis Lykiard (Letters, 10 December 1998) is quite right to point out that, in Knut Hamsun’s novel Hunger, the narrator announces his name to a policeman only to tell the reader immediately that he is lying: ‘I lied unnecessarily.’ I had written that the reader ‘fumblingly’ learns that the narrator’s name is Andreas Tangen, with the hope that my wavering adverb...

Sonic Boom

16 July 1998

John Sturrock (LRB, 16 July) is surely right to remind us that literary discourse, because it deals with the metaphorical, is itself subject to metaphorical exaggeration. This is Keats’s ‘fine excess’, and one of the nicely old-fashioned things literary theory of the past twenty years has done is remind us of this ineradicable literariness: it could be said that almost every word...
Andrew Gow (Letters, 21 May) regrets that a ‘skilled journalist’ rather than a ‘trained historian’ reviewed Peter Ackroyd’s ‘important’ biography of Thomas More. I would far rather be called an unskilled secularist than a skilled journalist. (And I doubt, by the way, that a decent historian would have called Ackroyd’s book ‘important’.) Gow...

Knowing What You Like

1 January 1998

Terence Hawkes finds me criticising Iris Murdoch for ‘simply knowing’ that Shakespeare and Tolstoy are great (Letters, 22 January). Since Hawkes has written repeatedly about the impossibility of finding greatness in writers (and particularly in Shakespeare), he is presumably delighted to see one of his opponents apparently doing the same. But I did not criticise Murdoch for ‘knowing’:...


9 May 1996

I admire Tom Paulin’s strong readings, and I admire his willingness to unsettle reputations. But he could be right about Eliot’s anti-semitism while still being wrong about Anthony Julius’s book (LRB, 9 May and Letters, 1 August. Though it may seem odd to the likes of R.H. Marshall (Letters, 1 August), who appear to spend their lives in a fug of conspiracy theory about the canon,...

Que sera sera

7 March 1996

Nick James is far too kind to both Leaving Las Vegas and the novel on which it is based (LRB, 7 March). Watching the film, one knows that its novel-source must be terrible; and reading the novel, one knows that no decent film could ever be made from it. John O’Brien, the author of Leaving Las Vegas, has been treated sweetly by film critics such as your contributor because he was a young novelist...
C.K. Stead’s review of Hazel Rowley’s biography of Christina Stead was moving and ample (LRB, 8 June). Given that hers was a narrative of literary neglect or of tardy acclaim – one of those ‘exemplary stories from which the lessons have always to be relearned’, as C.K. Stead nicely puts it – it may be worth correcting the impression he gives that Randall Jarrell...


22 February 1990

John Drakakis’s hysterical onslaught (Letters, 14 June) is like Karl Kraus’s definition of psychoanalysis: the illness for which it proposes itself the remedy. It is one of those letters much more revealing about its own strategies than about those it attacks. It is, above all, an instructive display of how the academy protects itself. Note, for instance, the easy opposition which Drakakis...

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